22 January 2008



By Brandon Keim January 15, 2008

AFTER FOUR YEARS OF DELIBERATION, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced today that meat from cloned animals and their offspring is safe to eat.

But despite public unease and lingering scientific uncertainty, the FDA won't require such meat to be labeled or tracked.

Food producers say they're not about to put cloned meat on American dinner plates, as the procedure is too expensive and inefficient, and a third of U.S. adults say they won't eat cloned meat regardless of its approval. Instead, farmers will purchase cloned animals to serve as breeding stock for their entire herds.

People tend to feel less repulsed at eating the offspring, so it's clone descendants that we'll eat -- though we probably won't know for sure. The FDA says clone-derived products don't need to be labeled.
"There's no way for the consumer to know whether they're getting cloned meat or their offspring," said Will Rostov, a senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, a agricultural advocacy group.

According to Rostov, the FDA should have treated cloned animals as a new animal drug, thus requiring a higher level of scrutiny and testing. "Anything that's changed the structure of the cell is a new animal drug. Cloning changes that structure. We filed a petition, but the FDA said they were using their discretion, that all they needed to do was some sort of risk assessment." The risk assessment, said Rostov, is based largely on conflicted industry data.

Cloning indeed causes genetic alterations: the extraordinary rates of early and horrible deaths among cloned animals testify graphically to that. The FDA counters that a clone capable of reaching breeding maturity is safe, and that genetic alterations caused during cloning aren't passed to their offspring.
But would it really be so hard to require cloned food products to be labeled? The FDA says ethical and economic issues aren't the purview of the new study -- but those words could be easily be turned against them, as the only argument against mandatory labeling is an economic one.

Among the other economic issues unconsidered by the FDA's report is food security. Critics say that cloning farm animals will produce genetic uniformity in US herds, leaving them prone to disease outbreaks or even bioterrorism. In addition to that, said Rostov, "The whole idea, to take the prize bull and say that we have the best genetics -- that freezes the genetics. With traditional breeding, you're trying to improve the genetics. Cloning freezes it at one moment."

Aside from a single throwaway line -- "Further, care needs to be taken not to rely excessively on a few apparently superior sires so as not to reduce the genetic diversity of the resulting herds" -- this concern doesn't arise in the report.

But given how utterly reliant the industry already is on in-vitro fertilization using sperm from a few prize steers, that's understandable. And in light of that, the issue of labeling seems less problematic. Yes, as a matter of principle, people have a right to know where their food comes from. But at this point, meat that doesn't come from small farms with an organic label is almost certain to originate in an industrial farming system defined by pollution, steroids and a dangerous overreliance on antibiotics.
Clones or no clones, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Update: The Center for Food Safety is pushing Congress to pass the 2007 Farm Bill, which contains an amendment that would overrule the FDA and delay the introduction of cloned animals into the food supply. Read their press release here.

FDA Issues Documents on the Safety of Food from Animal Clones [press release]
Animal Cloning: A Risk Assessment [FDA]